Paula Kerger Quietly Leads the Way

by Joseph Miller, Esq.

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down with Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS. We met at her office at PBS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. 

This is a serene office. I noticed your guitar by the window. Do you play?

The guitar was a gift from our station in Buffalo, WNED, who were instrumental (pun intended) in organizing that city’s guitar festival. Our colleagues at the station were aware of my adolescent ambition to be the next Joni Mitchell. This was only an ambition, however, as my guitar skills are quite limited and my voice is suited only for the shower.

PBS won 32 Emmy Awards last year. What do you attribute that success to?

PBS is dedicated to harnessing the power of media to change lives. That has been our mission for more than 40 years and it guides our work every day. It leads us to present the best content we can offer in every genre. This includes substantive, in-depth journalism; thought-provoking history and science; and arts programming that allows everyone to have a front seat to outstanding work from across the country and around the world, as well as curriculum-based, research-driven programming that helps children build critical skills, preparing them succeed in school and life.

Our content is unlike anything offered elsewhere in the television landscape. We are honored that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognized this so generously. I was particularly proud that the Emmys we won were for many types of programming – 12 Daytime Emmys for children’s series, 14 Primetime Emmys for everything from drama and arts to history, and six News and Documentary Emmys.

You were the Station Manager of Channel Thirteen in New York for thirteen years. Now you are President and CEO of PBS in Washington. Media is a competitive industry. How has the way you have navigated your career been different between the two cities?  Is the nature of competition different between the two cities?

Washington and New York are indeed two very different cities, but my work at PBS is actually more focused nationally. Most of my time is spent considering what will best serve our public television audience in communities across the country, ensuring that the work we deliver meets the needs of citizens.

Let’s talk about Independent Lens and POV. There have been some schedule changes to those shows recently. They were shifted from Tuesday nights at 10 PM to Thursday nights at 10 PM, which is viewed as a less desirable timeslot. Some have said this is evidence that PBS is falling on its sword, so to speak, and reneging on its commitment to independent programming in favor of mass appeal shows. What’s your perspective on that? 

PBS is fully dedicated to independent film and the diversity of content they provide. Just last year, approximately 120 independent productions appeared in the PBS primetime schedule. For decades, PBS has been a destination for a wide spectrum of voices, points of view, and distinctive visions.

We recognize the many outstanding awards earned by the independent filmmakers we have presented. Their acclaimed work contributes immeasurably to our schedule.

PBS, POV, and ITVS share a common commitment to independent film and are dedicated to working together towards our shared goals. Our recent joint conversations have been productive and we agreed to alternative scheduling options for Independent Lens and POV.  We plan to discuss these updates at PBS’ Annual Meeting, which is May 14-17 in Denver, CO.

I’m proud that five of the six News & Documentary Emmys I mentioned earlier were for POV – which won four awards – and Independent Lens. And earlier this month, PBS garnered seven George Foster Peabody Awards, more than any other organization. This is a competition for television and radio that recognizes “excellence, distinguished achievement, and meritorious public service.” Two honors went to POV and one to Independent Lens this year.

Gwen Ifill was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Hall of Fame this year. Jim Lehrer recently announced his retirement after 37 years as the lead anchor of Newshour. What are the plans for Newshour going forward?

One of the best aspects of my job is that I get to work with such talented, committed people. Gwen and Jim are incomparable journalists and I am so grateful for their work and all that they bring to PBS. While Jim has retired, he is still an integral part of PBS Newshour.

The series has undergone a number of successful transitions in its long history. It first launched in 1975 and has grown and changed over the years while retaining a steadfast commitment to outstanding reporting that has never altered.

I am confident in the show’s future because of the outstanding leadership there. Not only does Jim continue to guide the series, even though he has stepped out of his daily role, the recent appointment of Bo Jones as the CEO last October demonstrates that the program is in good hands.

And, of course, Newshour continues to boast one of the most talented, hard-working, and respected journalistic teams on television. The work that Jeffrey Brown, Gwen, Hari Sreenivasan, Ray Suarez, Margaret Warner, Judy Woodruff, and the rest of the Newshour team do every day continues to meet the very high expectations viewers have had of the program for decades.

PBS has done a fantastic job with children’s programming–it won 15 Parents’ Choice Awards last year. And the beauty of it is that you and PBS have had laser-like focus on addressing the developmental and social needs of all children, especially those in low-income communities. One study even showed a positive correlation between Super WHY! and higher test scores. Tell me more about PBS’ strategy for children’s programming and how it plays into improving educational outcomes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

First of all, thank you.

As I said earlier, PBS’ mission is to harness the power of media to change lives. Of course, television has tremendous power to reach children – especially those who can’t attend preschool.

We have all read that millions of children lack the basic early math and literacy skills necessary to succeed in school. We’ve been working with the Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a number of years on the Ready to Learn (RTL) Initiative to develop curriculum-based programming that helps children build critical skills. We work with independent researches to ensure that our content measurably improves children’s proficiency in fundamental areas.

You mentioned the Super WHY! research, but actually there are several independent studies that empirically demonstrate that PBS programs help to close the achievement gap in a measurable way.

We have developed in innovative blend of media across all platforms – TV, online, mobile, and more – and related community engagement activities that help children learn to read with series such as The Electric Company, Martha Speaks, Sesame Street, and Super WHY!

Aided by an additional round of funding from the Department of Education, we are taking what we’ve learned about teaching literacy skills and applying it to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Science) curriculum, the mastery of which will be of critical importance to the future of today’s children.

Programs such as The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That, Curious George, Dinosaur Train, and others open up the worlds of math and engineering to children with content that teaches numbers, counting, addition, subtraction, data analysis, graphing, measurement, shape recognition, pattern creation, and other key topics.

We also offer a wealth of tools for parents and teachers – in both English and Spanish – that offers information and advice about using our content at home or in the classroom to get the most out of our programming, online games, apps and other content with such resources as PBS KIDS Lab and PBS KIDS Island.

One thing we never lose sight of is that the content has to be entertaining as well as educational. If the program, game or app doesn’t draw the child in, it doesn’t matter how effective the curriculum is. That’s why I am so proud of our announcement earlier this week that in February 2012 the current PBS KIDS weekday block of preschool programming took the top four spots for kids ages two to five for the first time, according to Nielsen NPower national program ratings. Among kids ages two to five, Curious George was number one, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That and Super WHY! tied for second place and Dinosaur Train placed fourth.

PBS KIDS also drew record audiences online that month; February marked the first time PBSKIDS.org was the number one kids’ site for both unique viewers and videos viewed.

Reach is a key factor in our mission. Not every child has access to a computer or even, necessarily, to school in the earliest years, but almost every child in America has access to a television. In fact, according to Nielsen reports, 79% of all children ages two to 11 watch PBS in the course of a year.

Is there is one thing you would like to tell policymakers in Washington about public broadcasting, what would it be?

That we are here to help meet the nation’s priorities in a way that delivers outstanding return on the federal investment.

Each day, the effective, efficient work of PBS stations help educate America’s children, train teachers, assist communities and first responders during local emergencies, present in-depth journalism that informs citizens about important issues in their neighborhoods and the around the globe, make the arts accessible to all citizens regardless of where they live, and more. We provide a place where ideas can be explored and discussed in respectful, civil way, which is a critical role in any democracy.

Public broadcasting’s local/national structure has both the broad reach and deep local roots to serve Americans in a way no other enterprise can match. Earlier, I mentioned the number of children who watch PBS in a year. It’s also worth noting that Nielsen data show that 91% of all US television households tune into PBS local stations over a twelve-month period.

In short, we are the nation’s largest classroom, its biggest stage for the arts, and a trusted window to the world, all for the cost of about $1.35 per person.

This is a cost that the American public call the second best use of their tax dollars, outranked only by military defense in a recent national study. This research also found PBS is considered the most trusted public institution in the country.

We are grateful for the trust the American public places in our work and are proud of the way we leverage the nation’s investment to deliver content and services that so many people rely on each day.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Paula.

You’re welcome.

Joseph Miller, Esq. is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Director of the Media and Technology Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC.  More information on Mr. Miller and his work can be found at the Joint Center website.
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